Vail and Aspen are two of the biggest names in skiing.
But what’s the real difference between the two?
Step aside, marketing materials. I’m an avid skier who lived in Colorado for years, and I’m here to share the insider’s scoop between these two mountains. (Including detailed recommendations about which one is best for you!)
- General Thoughts – Vail vs. Aspen
- Mountain Stats Comparison: Vail vs. Aspen
- Location & Ease of Access
- Ski Towns: Vail vs. Aspen
- Snow at Vail vs. Aspen
- General Terrain Comparison
General Thoughts – Vail vs. Aspen
Vail and Aspen have a reputation as two of the most famous and luxurious ski resorts in the world.
And for the most part, that reputation is well-deserved. These are definitely two world-class mountains.
Here are my quick guidelines for how I’d choose between the two:
- If you’re looking for a more remote, off-the-popular path experience in one of the most luxurious mountain towns in the world, you might prefer Aspen.
- If you’re looking to ski a huge, popular mountain a little closer to Denver, Vail may be more your style.
And of course, these days it’s always worth mentioning the ski pass. Vail is on the Epic Pass, whereas Aspen is found on the Ikon Pass or Mountain Collective Pass.
Here are my detailed ratings for the mountains:
We’ll talk about these ratings throughout the rest of this post.
Mountain Stats Comparison: Vail vs. Aspen
Upfront, it’s worth noting that the ski resort known as “Aspen” actually consists of four separate ski resorts, each located a few minutes away by car or shuttle. Since one lift ticket grants you access to all four mountains, I’ve included all four of Aspen’s mountains in the above stats. (This only seems fair, since you can ski multiple Aspen mountains in the same day… in fact, I’ve done it countless times!)
So while Aspen is barely larger overall, Vail is the larger, single continuous mountain.
Location & Ease of Access
Both mountains are located in Colorado’s famous ski country.
Vail is located a little less than 2 hours east of Denver, while Aspen is about 3.5 hours east of Denver.
Ease of Access
For most people, Vail is a slightly easier mountain to access.
Vail is located along the popular “I-70” string of resorts that are so convenient for Denver day trippers. So, most visitors fly to Denver International Airport and then make the 2+ hour drive from there.
By comparison, Aspen is located further into the mountainous region of Southwestern Colorado. Driving from Denver’s airport to Aspen takes well over 4 hours.
Of course, both mountains do have regional airports just minutes from the slopes, although each one is in the top 10 for worst delay/cancellation rates in the country. (If you’re flying your private jet into either airport, as is clearly popular based on the number of G6s I see styling on the runaways, then you may have a different experience. Unfortunately, I can’t personally comment on that side of living.)
Ski Towns: Vail vs. Aspen
Vail and Aspen are both considered some of the best ski towns in the world, known for luxury, shopping, and more designer fur-coats than you’ll ever see in your life.
Personally, I find Aspen to be a more charming ski town. Its location, deep in the heart of a narrow canyon and the remote Elk Mountain range, really feels like you’re nestled into the wild, wild mountains. And the way the chairlift spills right out into the middle of town is an awesome, unique experience. The result is that Aspen is a legitimate billionaire’s playground, and it carries the feel of a living, breathing resort town with plenty of locals… or at least, well-off tourists who visit frequently enough to consider themselves locals.
Vail, by comparison, feels a little more man-made. The main attraction is the European-inspired village, filled with endless shopping and entertainment. While lots of visitors get a real kick out of this setup, I personally find the newer construction to feel a little less authentic. Somehow, the place reminds me of Disneyland in the mountains, which may be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. Either way, it’s clear that in the world of man-made ski villages, Vail is among the most impressive on the continent.
Mountain Vibe and Atmosphere
The reputation for luxury is real at both spots, so you’ll find a high-end, high-class vibe at both places.
Each mountain is filled to the brim with ski valets, high speed chairlifts, and some of the most impressive lift systems in the world. And among the clientele, expect to spot more designer ski clothing than you knew existed.
Between the two, Vail is much more popular with Denver day-trippers just because of its location closer to the city, which does tend to split the clientele between “average local hoping score max value from his affordably-priced Epic Pass” and “well-off visitor who traveled from half-way across the world to experience this expensive international destination.” Speaking of the latter, while skiing at Vail, it’s obvious you’re at an international landmark. I hear more foreign languages, from all corners of the earth, being spoken in the Vail liftlines than anywhere else I’ve ever skied.
On the contrary, Aspen experiences far less Denver locals and seems populated almost entirely with either permanent Aspen residents or wealthy vacationers. The town of Aspen is packed with luxury shopping, fine dinning, and expensive everything… as my college buddies and I once discovered while trying to find an affordable meal in town. (Before eventually giving up and grabbing a $25+ burger at a “dive bar.”) Aspen’s vibe continues onto the mountain itself. Nowhere is this as apparent as the legendary Cloud 9 – an 11,000 foot elevation bistro halfway up the Aspen Highlands resort, where guests are known spray $125 bottles of Champagne all over the floors and ceiling. (For a relatively more down to earth spot, check out Snowmass Village, where lodging and dining is less bank-breaking, but still definitely high end, as evident by the endless number of ski in/out options lining the wonderfully designed village.)
Aspen is less crowded.
Not only is Aspen harder to get to, but management is also more protective of its attendance, often limiting its appearance on partner-passes to just a few days a year.
By comparison, Vail is featured prominently on the Epic Pass, giving all the front-range Coloradans unlimited skiing whenever they want to day-trip from the nearby Denver metro.
Snow at Vail vs. Aspen
A very close category, with the slight edge to Vail.
Depending on where you are measuring, Vail gets anywhere from 50-100 inches more snow per year than Aspen’s four different mountains.
That said, all four of those Aspen mountains are situated perfectly for preserving the snow they get, with almost all the slopes facing due north. By comparison, much of Vail’s notable terrain faces south or west, which has a tendency to melt the snow a little more because of the angle of the sun.
Vail has my favorite mountain scenery of all the I-70 ski resorts near Denver, but the dramatic mountains surrounding Aspen are hard to beat, in my opinion.
Aspen just has a special feeling that comes from the general “remote” vibe of being in the stunning southwestern corner of Colorado. Or maybe that’s just the never-ending, crazy steep mountain views talking…
General Terrain Comparison
Both Vail and Aspen will have plenty of whatever terrain you are looking for. Combined, these are some of the biggest ski resorts in the world, so if you can’t find it here, there’s not many places you can.
Let’s take a deeper look.
Advantage – Vail.
Vail has several green runs that run all over the mountain, including right up to the highest elevations. So, beginners at Vail get the unique experience of being on top of the world, and could even explore all over the resort’s massive acreage.
Aspen, by comparison, is more limited. Of Aspen’s four mountains, two of them (Aspen Highlands and the signature Aspen Mountain near downtown) have exactly zero green runs. Snowmass, Aspen’s largest mountain, is also pretty limited in green terrain, with only a few green runs located at the very bottom of the mountain.
But wait! Aspen does have Buttermilk Mountain, which is arguably one of the better beginner mountains in the country. Located about 5 minutes from downtown Aspen, Buttermilk has plenty of green terrain with wonderful views. But even better, the mountain is pretty neglected by the town’s more advanced skiers, leaving beginners free to learn the sport in peace. Mix this with possibly the most renown ski school in America, and it gives Aspen a fantastic beginner setup in it’s own right.
Both mountains are fantastic for intermediates, but I have to give the edge to Aspen.
Specifically, Aspen Snowmass has some of the best blue groomers I’ve ever seen. These extra-long and extra-fun blues are perfectly pitched and seem to go on forever. Mix this with Snowmass’s lower crowds, and it’s a perfect recipe for letting the skis fly.
Vail also has some incredible blue groomers, plus plenty of more approachable black diamonds for confident intermediates.
Intermediates can’t really go wrong at either place, which is why I gave Aspen and Vail rare 10/10 and 9/10 intermediate terrain ratings, respectively.
Vail has some of the best advanced terrain in the world, so they are the winner for this category.
You can basically take what I said about the intermediate terrain and flip it for the advanced terrain.
Vail’s legendary 10/10 advanced terrain eeks out Aspen’s still fantastic 9/10 advanced terrain. Vail’s big advantage is in the form of its Back Bowls – a sprawling 3,000+ acres of open, moderately pitched powder field that’s heaven on earth for more advanced skiers.
Aspen has better expert terrain.
The one knock on Vail is that on the whole, it’s not the steepest mountain in the world. You’ll even notice this on the trail map… Vail is black diamonds galore, but the double blacks are surprisingly few and far between. As a result, that fantastic skiing for advanced skiers might not provide the same adrenaline rush for the true experts out there.
By comparison, Aspen, and the legendary Highland Bowl at Aspen Highlands, has some of the steepest in bounds skiing in all of Colorado.